Photo copyright 2009 by Darren Bonaparte

River of the Iroquois

The Aboriginal History of the St. Lawrence River

by Darren Bonaparte

The St. Lawrence River Valley, which the Mohawks call Kaniatarowanenneh, or the "big waterway," has a rich history of aboriginal use and occupation dating back over 9,000 years. The first occupants that we know of were the hunters who roamed the shores of what was then the Champlain Sea. As the climate continued to improve the waters of the Champlain Sea receded as well, leaving behind the lower St. Lawrence River, the Richelieu River, and Lake Champlain to a steady progression of human occupation and development. While these early inhabitants may have lived a simple hunting lifestyle there is ample evidence that they enjoyed extensive trading networks that brought them quartzite from the far north, copper from the western shore of Lake Superior, jasper from eastern Pennsylvania, and flint from the gulf of St. Lawrence, to name just a few.

Archaeological studies conducted on islands on the Akwesasne territory indicate that this area was extensively used by aboriginal groups that hunted, fished, and gathered berries and plant life. The islands themselves seemed to have been used primarily as a place to process the fish they caught before sending it on to the bigger villages situated deeper inland. Some islands were used for burial mounds, indicating an advanced concept of an afterlife. Like the earlier hunters before them, these later inhabitants shared and traded resources and technology with those around them.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, the St. Lawrence River Valley was occupied by a people that archaeologists have termed "the St. Lawrence Iroquoians." They get this name because they were more closely related to other Iroquoians such as the Huron and Iroquois than to the Algonquian peoples of what is now New England and Canada. Oral traditions of the Iroquois confirm that our ancient ancestors were once part of a single group that migrated this way from the Ohio River Valley before encountering an Algonquain people on the upper St. Lawrence that forced them to find refuge south and southeast of Lake Ontario.

...By their earliest traditions, we are told that a body of the Ongwe Honwe, encamped on the banks of the St. Lawrence, where they were invaded by a nation few in number, but of giant stature, called Ronongweca. After a war, brought on by personal encounters and incidents, and carried on with perfidy and cruelty, they were delivered at length, by the skill and courage of Yatontea, who, after retreating before them, raised a large body of men and defeated them, after which they were supposed to be extinct. They next suffered from the malice, perfidy, and lust of an extraordinary person called Shotrowea, who was finally driven across the St. Lawrence, and came to a town south of the shores of lake Ontario, where, however, he only disguised his intentions, to repeat his cruel and perfidious deeds. This person, who assassinated many persons, and violated six virgins, they point to as a fiend in human shape.

At this time the Big Quisquis invaded the country, who pushed down the houses of the people, and created great consternation and disturbance. After making ineffectual resistance, they fled, but were at length relieved by a brave chief, who raised a body of men to battle him, but the animal himself retired. In this age of monsters, their country was invaded by another monster called the "Big Elk," who was furious against men, and destroyed the lives of many persons, but he was at length killed after a severe contest.

A great horned serpent next appeared on Lake Ontario, who, by means of his poisonous breath, produced diseases, and caused the death of many, but he was at last compelled to retire by thunderbolts. This fourth calamity was not forgotten, when a fifth happened. A blazing star fell into a fort situated on the banks of the St. Lawrence, and destroyed the people. Such a phenomenon caused a great panic and dread, and they regarded it as ominous of their entire destruction. Prior to this, a confederation had taken place among these northern tribes, situated north of and along the banks of the great lakes, and they had a ruling chief over all. This ruler repaired to the south to visit a ruler of great fame and authority, who resided at a great town in A LODGE OF GOLD. But it only proved to be an embassy of folly, for this great ruler, exercising an imperial sway, availing himself of the information thus derived, of a great country full of resources, built many forts throughout the country, and almost penetrated to the banks of Lake Erie. The people who had confederated on the North resisted. A long war of a hundred years standing ensued, but the northern people were better skilled in the use of the bow and arrow, and were more expert woodsmen and warriors. They at length prevailed, and taking all these towns and forts, left them a heap of ruins.

But the prediction of the blazing star was now verified. The tribes who were held together by feeble bands, fell into disputes, and wars among themselves, which were pursued through a long period, until they utterly destroyed each other, and so reduced their numbers, that the land was again overrun by wild beasts. (Schoolcraft 1846: 39-40)

This old tradition states that there was once a great confederacy that had villages on the St. Lawrence River. After a shooting star destroyed one of their villages on the St. Lawrence, the confederacy broke down, leaving two or three smaller confederacies in their wake who eventually became hostile to each other. The Huron Confederacy, north of Lake Ontario, and the Iroquois Confederacy were two of those; a third would be the people archaeologists refer to as the "St. Lawrence Iroquoians."

The region’s first European explorers encountered the latter as they made their way up the mighty St. Lawrence. Jacques Cartier visited two major settlements of these "St. Lawrence Iroquoians" at what is now Quebec City and Montreal in 1535. His observations tell us a great deal about these people. Like their cultural cousins, the Huron and Iroquois, they lived in bark longhouses surrounded by multiple rows of palisades and extensive gardens.

...And on reaching Hochelaga, there came to meet us more than a thousand persons, both men, women, and children, who gave us as good a welcome as ever father gave to his son, making great signs of joy; for the men danced in one ring, the women in another and the children also apart by themselves. After this they brought us quantities of fish, and of their bread which is made of Indian corn, throwing so much of it into our long-boats that it seemed to rain bread. Seeing this, the captain went on shore; and no sooner had he landed than they all crowded about him and about the others, giving them a wonderful reception.

...And in the middle of these fields is situated and stands the village of Hochelaga, near and adjacent to a mountain, the slopes of which are fertile and are cultivated, and from the top of which one can see for a long distance. We named this mountain "Mount Royal." The village is circular and is completely enclosed by a wooden palisade in three tiers like a pyramid. The top one is built crosswise, the middle one perpendicular and the lowest one of strips of wood placed lenthwise. The whole is well joined and lashed together after their manner, and is some two lances in height. There is only one gate and entrance to this village, and that can be barred up. Over this gate and in many places about the enclosure are species of galleries with ladders for mounting to them, which galleries are provided with rocks and stones for defense and protection of the place. There are some fifty houses in this village, each about fifty or more paces in length, and twelve or fifteen in width, built completely of wood and covered in and bordered up with large pieces of bark and rind of trees, as broad as a table, which are well and cunningly lashed after their manner. And inside these houses are many rooms and chambers; and in the middle is a large space without a floor, where they light their fire and live together in common. (Trigger and Pendergast 1967: 333-334)

When Samuel de Champlain came to the area in 1603, the great villages that Cartier visited were gone. The mystery of what happened to these people has puzzled historians, archaeologists, linguists, and anthropologists for generations. The latest theories suggest they were absorbed by the Hurons, as either captives or as refugees, although there is evidence that a few of them ended up among the Iroquois, particularly in Mohawk country.

History records that the 17th century was a complicated time of shifting alliances and warfare between rival European colonies and the surviving aboriginal nations, all for the control of the fur trade. This turned the St. Lawrence River Valley into a type of "no-man’s land" where canoes loaded down with furs were often ambushed and seized by rival tribes. Eventually the Iroquois emerged from these dark days as the victors, having absorbed and/or dispersed the Huron who had previously absorbed and/or dispersed the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. Thus, when Mohawks began to move to the St. Lawrence River near Montreal in the later part of the 17th century, they were able to claim to the French that at least some of their ancestors had called that particular area home.

Count Frontenac visited this particular stretch of the St. Lawrence on his way to a great council with the Iroquois in 1673. His journal offers this description of the area from Lake Francis to the Long Sault Rapids:

(July) 4th. Continued the route, and passed through the most delightful country in the world. The entire river was spangled with Islands, on which were only oaks and hard wood ; the soil is admirable, and the borders of the main land on the North and South banks are equally handsome, the timber being very clean and lofty, forming a forest equal to the most beautiful in France. Both banks of the River are lined with prairies full of excellent grass, interspersed with an infinity of beautiful flowers ; so that it may be asserted there would not be a more lovely country in the world than that from Lake St. Francis to the head of the Rapids, were it cleared.

Made three leagues this afternoon, and halted at a spot more delightful than any we had yet seen : it was near the little channel leading to the Long Sault on the North side, and opposite the mouth of a River by which people go to the Mohawks. The Great River, here, is only a musket shot across. Sieur Le Moine was sent to examine that which goes to the Mohawks, and reported that it formed a large, circular, deep and pleasant basin behind the Point in front of which we had halted, and that the Iroquois, whom he found there, had informed him that there was five days’ easy navigation in that river, and three when the waters were lower. (NYCD IX:99)

The above quote suggests that the "no-man’s land" was firmly under the control of the Iroquois at this time. In fact many maps from this era clearly identify the upper St. Lawrence as "Riviere de Iroquois." Thanks to peaceful relations between the French and their new Iroquois allies, another era of "Iroquoian occupation" of the St. Lawrence River Valley was about to begin. Not far from the fur trading post at Montreal, a new Indian village was established which consisted of Oneida, Algonquin, and Huron peoples at first but was later joined by large numbers of Mohawks. Just as they had done with the Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca centuries before, the Mohawks formed a peaceful alliance with their former enemies that had both economic and military advantages. In time, they outgrew their initial villages and began to spread out along the St. Lawrence from the Quebec City area, where the Hurons established Wendake, to what is now Ogdensburg, New York, where the Onondaga established Sawekatsi. They eventually came to be known as the "Seven Nations of Canada" and were frequently employed on French expeditions against the English colonies in the series of colonial conflicts known today as the French and Indian Wars.

At the beginning of the Seven Years War (1755-1763), a new Mohawk mission village was established where the St. Regis River joins the St. Lawrence. The people who came to live here knew this area as Akwesasne, commonly translated as "land where the partridge drums," from the abundance of the game bird along the shores. These early settlers provided limited support to the French war effort and were quick to lay down their arms when a combined force of British and Iroquois sailed down the St. Lawrence on their way to the conquest of Montreal in the summer of 1760. With the promise of protection of both their lands and their way of life, the people of the Seven Nations of Canada took hold of the "Covenant Chain," or alliance, with Great Britain.

England’s new allies have proven themselves time and again. At least a hundred men from Akwesasne joined the loyalist forces during the American Revolution, even though their village was somewhat remote from the main theater of war. When Sir John Johnson and his loyalists moved to the north shore of the St. Lawrence River immediately following that conflict, having been driven out of their homes in the colony of New York, they chose a location in close proximity to their native allies at Akwesasne. While relations between the people of Akwesasne and "New Johnstown" didn’t start off on the best foot, our young men didn’t hesitate to defend their Canadian allies in the War of 1812, the Patriot Rebellion of the 1830’s and even the Fenian Invasion of the 1860’s. We also leased and rented out numerous tracts of Akwesasne territory on both the islands and mainland to non-native farmers, and found ready markets for fish, produce, and crafts in the new villages springing up along the St. Lawrence River. As well, many of our men went out west as guides to the major fur traders, some served as boatmen for travel on the St. Lawrence, and still others went to work as lumberjacks.

That the Mohawks have played a major role in the history of the St. Lawrence River cannot be denied, from ancient times right up to the present. We take our connection to Kanaiatarowenenneh very seriously. Having suffered tremendous physical, cultural and economic losses due to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Mohawks of Akwesasne are determined to protect and preserve the natural resources that still remain. We have initiated extensive scientific research into the effects of industrial pollution on the fragile ecosystem and have taken major corporations to court over the damages they have wrought. We have passed our own conservation laws and routinely patrol the rivers and islands.

Our dedication to the natural world also extends to the people from whom we inherit this land. This means repatriating and reburying human remains and burial goods that were dug up and collected in the past. We are also currently involved in developing protocols to guide those hoping to conduct archaeological research in the Akwesasne territory. This is to ensure that human remains and related cultural artifacts are treated with the respect that they deserve and not subjected to abuse as they may have in the past by unscrupulous "pot-hunters" and their like. Working closely with professional archaeologists who are familiar with sites in the area, and in conjunction with government agencies and private educational institutions, we have begun an archaeological field school that will emphasize spiritual awareness as well as scientific technique. This will ensure that those entrusted with the protection of Kaniatarowanenneh in ancient times are in turn protected by those who hold this sacred trust today.


Notes on the Iroquois: or, Contributions to the Statistics, Aboriginal History, Antiquities, and General Ethnology of Western New York, by Henry R. Schoolcraft, New York (1846) pp. 39-40.

Cartier’s Account of Hochelaga 1535 and his Return to Montreal Island in 1541, Appendix I, reprinted in Cartier’s Hochelaga and the Dawson Site, Bruce Trigger and James Pendergast, (1972) pp. 333-334.

Journal of Count de Frontenac’s Voyage to Lake Ontario in 1673, published in the Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York, Vol. IX. E.B. O’Callaghan, editor. Albany. (1853-57) p.99. 

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